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Reassessing Digital Engagement, Part III

From the series Second Thoughts on Digital Engagement

This is the third and final post in Jesse Ciccotti’s series “Second Thoughts on Digital Engagement,” which reconsiders the autumn 2023 ChinaSource Quarterly“Digital Engagement.” Read part one and part two of the series.

Digital Discipleship?

What good is salt if it has lost its saltiness? We ought to take a long, hard look at the digital strategies we have adopted or might adopt, and consider them in light of what we know about our existence as embodied persons. I believe the church has something truly refreshing and life-giving to offer, but it won’t be found by providing more of, or adopting wholesale and without critical and selective rejection of, what the world has to offer.

A paradigm I see recurring in some of the autumn 2023 Quarterly articles seems to regard evangelism and discipleship as merely mechanical outcomes of best techniques, based on information transfer. If we put the right material (“content”) through the right machine (the most popular digital medium of the time, with the most subscribers or users), then we should expect a particular product or result. And when we use mass communication via digital technology, we can mass produce the same results. In other words, missions can be technologically scaled—the same result in greater numbers.

This, at least in my mind, is contrary to true discipleship and evangelism. The gospel, the good news of relational reconciliation to God, is not merely information, but transformation. And although this is discussed in a lot of Christian literature, we still fall back on technique as a means of accomplishing something that is intensely personal.1

Truly Relational Ministry

Several articles discuss the importance of “relational ministry” through digital media, or a “relational approach” to digital spaces.

Recent developments in the study of the brain (neuroscience), when understood through a Christian lens, point towards a move away from digital technique as a means of experiencing God’s transformative work in our lives.

Dr. Jim Wilder, a psychologist, neuroscientist, and Christian, looks at Christian spiritual development through what we know about how the brain works. Dr. Wilder identifies four nutrients our souls need for healthy development: joy, “sticky” love, a strong group identity, and healthy correction.2 Joy is the first, foundational nutrient; the others follow from it. One “joy leak” prevalent in the twenty-first century is digital technology.

We use smartphones, television, and movie screens to fill our idle minutes or hours. Joy and screen time are inversely proportional…Our need for face-to-face time is designed into our flesh and cannot be substituted with a screen. Our brains distinguish between a real face and a face on a screen even when we are infants. Our neurological circuits do not react to screens the same way as they do to live faces. Since we need facial joy like we need food and oxygen, we are starving ourselves of relational nutrition.3

Joy is knowing that someone is glad to be with me, and it enables us to build attachments with other persons. Our brains are constantly asking the questions “Who am I?” and “How do I act in this situation?” It draws answers from those we are attached to. When we are attached to someone, we begin to act like them. This, in turn, forms our group identity. When we are attached to someone, or even better, a group of people, and we know they are glad to be with us (joy!), we become more like them. We allow them to graciously correct our bad character. That is how character changes.

The root of transformation begins with embodied, personal interaction, which cannot be replicated through digital connection. This is not really a new understanding; brain science is merely confirming what we have known at least since the Incarnation.

Can some information regarding Jesus, the gospel, and life-with-God be communicated through digital means? Yes, absolutely. But discipleship is the transformation of a person into Christ’s likeness, and the normal, everyday means of that happening is people in vital, real (as opposed to virtual), personal relationships with one another.

Does that mean absolutely nothing transformative can take place across an internet connection? Certainly not. Particularly if you already have a strong attachment bond with someone, your brain can fill in the gap, and joy can be communicated. But we should always be aware that we are making digital technology do an enormous amount of work for us, and often we are asking it to do things that it simply cannot do—even when the technicians want us to believe that they can!

I hope this brief glance at discipleship (and the above applies equally to evangelism) through the lens of brain science encourages a deeper self-reflection on our discipleship habits and assumptions. Perhaps it might spark a future ChinaSource investigation into discipleship and evangelistic techniques and assumptions in Chinese contexts.

For Further Reading

On Technology

Jacques Ellul can be quite difficult to read if you are not familiar with him. I would recommend this introductory book before you pick up his work:

Jeffrey P. Greenman, Read Mercer Schuchardt, and Noah J. Toly. Understanding Jacques Ellul. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012.

Brain Science and Christian Transformation

Jim Wilder has written quite a bit from a Christian perspective on the last 30 or so years of discoveries in neuroscience.

The book I quoted above is:

Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks. The Other Half of Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 2022.

Another book that engages with the work of Dallas Willard is:

Jim Wilder. Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church That Transforms. Carol Stream. IL: Navpress, 2020.

Curt Thompson is another excellent option. Among his many good books, I would recommend you check out:

Curt Thompson. Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships. Carrollton, TX: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010.


  1. Here, personal does not imply “individual,” but rather, it points to our personhood, as relational beings.
  2. From a book co-authored with Michel Hendricks, The Other Half of Church (Moody Press, 2020). For a similar approach, see Curt Thompson’s, Anatomy of the Soul (Tyndale House Publishers, 2010).
  3. Wilder and Hendricks, The Other Half of Church, 68–69.
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Jesse Ciccotti

Jesse Ciccotti

Jesse Ciccotti holds a PhD in Comparative Philosophy from Hong Kong Baptist University and an MA in Chinese Philosophy from Wuhan University. He and his family lived in China for 12 years.      View Full Bio

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